Tuesday, 23 November 2010

6. Post Internet Reading Habits

Recently, at Jesus Creed, Scot McKnight wrote a post called "Your Reading Habits Post Internet."  He asked a series of important questions related to this topic.  I have been thinking about this topic, and jotting down some notes.  Here are my thoughts.
On memory: internet reading doesn’t ask us to remember; it remains there for us to bookmark. Real reading generates memory because it leads us into the world of an author and a story and a book that is interconnected to other books. Why remember when you can look it up?
Why indeed?  I grew up in the dark ages when an important part of education was memorization.  Long before I went to grade one (in the days before kindergarten was an established part of the education system), my mom taught us dozens of nursery rhymes.  50 plus years later I remember them clearly.  And I taught them to my own children.  Who are teaching them to their children.  Though apparently such inter-generational passing-down is becoming an anomoly.  Not to mention, scorned by those who see most nursery rhymes as decidedly un-PC. 

Mom also read us the old-time children's stories.  Cinderella and Aesop's Fables and The Children's Book of Bible Stories and the Golden Books version of  The Three Little Pigs.  Okay, well maybe The Three Little Pigs isn't quite so old-timey, but I still tell it to my grand-kids, word for word, and they love it.  We didn't have as many books, and we didn't have TV (we were a bit old-fashioned, I admit) and movies, and we most certainly didn't have computers, with all the educational paraphenalia that go with them.  But mom and dad read those stories to us over and over again, and they became an integral part of our lives.

We had Sunday School and Church too.  In Sunday School, even as little tots, we memorized short verses, or parts of verses.  We sang Sunday School choruses and hymns in Church (in the day and age when the whole family sat together in Church), over and over, and through that music we memorized the tenets of the faith that had been passed down through generations.  As we grew older we memorized longer sections of scripture, too, and learned new songs.

We memorized on trips, too.  My dad was a bit of a gypsy-at-heart, and we did a lot of road-trip travels.  No cassettes or CDs, certainly no TVs or on-board movies, and radio-stations were mostly local and far-between.  So we sang songs, and memorized poetry and scripture.

At school, memorization of poetry was assumed.  We started out with simple poetry, like those from Robert Louis Stevenson's "A Child's Garden of Verses."  Our classes entered the "poetry recitation" sections of the local annual Music Festival.  To this day, I can recite, with great enunciation, "The Owl and the Pussycat" and "The Steam-Digger," our second grade poems which won our class a first-place prize.  Even in high school, we memorized sections from "Hamlet" and "MacBeth" (yes, in the original Shakespearean English; and yes, we had to recite them orally as well as write them with perfect spelling, punctuation and grammar).  Of course, nowadays, it is felt that forcing children and youth to memorize is harmful to their self-esteem, as it requires hard work and they might feel badly if they make a mistake or two.  Ha!

On tests, like in Social Studies, we were also expected to memorize bits of information, and regurgitate them on tests.  I admit that I sometimes felt this was silly, as the information could easily be looked up in an encyclopedia or handbook, and as much of the information was soon outdated.  Countries and capital cities, provinces and states, names and locations of rivers and mountains, names of explorers with the dates they "discovered new lands," Kings and Queens and the dates they ruled, the main exports and imports of countries around the world.  We learned ways to retain information: little ditties ("In fourteen-hundred-and-ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue") and word-plays (the inner planets: "Mary Very Easily Makes Jam").  And by memorizing  the bits and parts of the stories, we learned the stories better.  Maybe we would forget some of those bits and pieces down the road, but the stories stayed with us.  And we had a sense of where they fit into the big story.

Now, with the internet at our finger-tips, why should we memorize?  And with information growing exponentially, why bother trying?  What's the point of learning a bunch of dead old history, when we're continuously bombarded with (scattered bits and pieces of) history-in-the-making?  Why memorize countries and capitals when they are constantly changing?  Why even bother publishing atlases when they are out-of-date before they come off the presses? 

I think that memory is still crucially important, because memory makes information a part of us, a part of the way we think, a part of the way we interact with others and with the circumstances in our lives.  Memory helps us to understand that we are part of a past, as well as a present.  And being part of a past encourages us to imagine a future too, a future that maybe we can be a part of, as our being part of the past affects the way we live and the choices we make in the present.

Furthermore, if we choose to bypass memory, we lose the ability to understand the stories that connect us to our past - and to the present and future.  The memories of the past lose meaning.  We lose our "cultural literacy" , whether that be our personal cultural history, or the many cultural histories that connect the world.  So we stop reading the stories.  We stop connecting with humanity in both small and big pictures.  And more and more, we stop connecting with humanity face-to-face.  We become fragmented.  And our society becomes fragmented.  And then what happens to us?  To humankind?  Do we tell ourselves that we are framing some kind of wonderful Brave New World? Maybe so.  But is that a good thing or bad?  (And would the average reader understand the references in this paragraph without the links?)

As the quote says, "Real reading generates memory because it leads us into ... a story ... that is interconnected to other..." stories.  I believe that if we choose not to remember, we choose to cut ourselves off from the stories that make us part of the history of humankind.

Internet reading is about being connected; real reading, book reading, means being disconnected and lost in the world of the book.
Ah, the irony.

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